Two weeks to go to close of entries and the 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race looks set for another cracking edition -its 30th. 73 yachts have entered so far, only five short of last year's record number but only one entry from Ireland, Legally Brunette . The varied fleet will have different aspirations, but from the largest, ICAP Leopard, to the smallest, Sipi's Song; from the ten launched in 2009 to the oldest launched in 1974, Zizanie, all entrants will have one objective in common: to experience one of the most exceptional race courses in the world of sailing.
When the fleet sets off on its 606 nautical-mile adventure on 17 October it will do so from a new start line. Grand Harbour is synonymous with Malta. If the bastions are impressive on the Marsamxett Harbour side of Valletta, those overlooking Grand Harbour are awe-inspiring; the Valletta peninsular drops more abruptly from its full height to the water on this side. Peter Dimech from organisers, the Royal Malta Yacht Club, is Principal Race Officer and has the task of getting the yachts away, "we have opted for a spectacular start line that runs between a mast at the Saluting Battery on the St Peter and St Paul Bastion built during the late-1500's and an inflatable mark, to be laid just off Fort St. Angelo, home to the Knights of St John." What could be more impressive?
In previous releases, reference has been made to the fastest yacht in the list this year, Mike Slade's 30-metre ICAP Leopard (GBR), her likely closest competitor Karl Kwok's 24-metre Beau Geste (HKG), Danilo Salsi's Swan 90 DSK Pioneer Investment (ITA) and, of course, the cool and trendy Mini Maxis: Rán 2 (Niklas Zennstrom/GBR), Rosebud/Team DYT (Roger Sturgeon/USA), Bella Mente (Hap Fauth/USA), Alegre (Andy Soriano/GBR) and Luna Rossa (Patrizio Bertelli/ITA). The Rolex Middle Sea Race is more than just a big-boat race though and there is a lot to be said for a look at some of the smaller yachts.
Sipi's Song (ITA) is one of three boats slipping into the ring at under 10-metres in length and owner, Dezio Paoletti, is entering his 9.15-metre Figaro 1 for the first time. Another first-timer at the diet end of the fleet spectrum is Joao Perreira the Portuguese owner of the second smallest monohull in the fleet, Barcanova, a 9.47-metre Sunfast 3200. A year ago, Perreira did not plan to do the race, "I bought the boat to compete in La Transquadra (a transatlantic race for amateurs over the age of 40). Just after the finish of the first leg, I had to move from Portugal to Malta for business reasons. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to do this race." Perreira will be sailing under the burgee of the Associaçao Naval de Lisboa.
A mark of how the average size of yachts participating in the Rolex Middle Sea Race has been creeping up even as the numbers entered increases is reflected in the fact that there are only seven yachts in the 10 to 11 metre range. Two of these are from Malta. Lee Satariano's J-109 Artie came close to creating local folklore with the biggest upset of all time when, in 2006, he and his young crew came within a hair's breadth of unseating the 26-metre Morning Glory from top spot. The second Maltese boat is Edward Gatt Floridia's Beneteau 36.7 Otra Vez. Unlike Artie, Otra Vez is making her first appearance. "We almost did not make it," said Floridia. "We bought the boat in Galveston, Texas, last year and only just got her out of the water and away before Hurricane Ike hit." This is Floridia's fifth race, but his first skippering his own boat.
There are also seven yachts between 11 and 12 metres, one of these is the ever popular Maltese boat AirMalta Falcon II, a Beneteau 40.7, skippered by Matthew Scicluna, two-time winner of the Youth Cup for youngest crew and undoubtedly the youngest skipper in this year's race. Scicluna will have some tough competition. Tomas Dolezal, skipper Milan Hajek and the Beneteau 40.7 Three Sisters (CZE) finished fourth overall in 2008 and is back again for a second stab.
From 12 to 13 metres there are fourteen entrants, including the irrepressible Beppe Bisotto and his brand-new Fast 42 Atame! (ITA). "This is my sixth race. My best result was 26th overall in 2006 and last year we had to retire. This year, however, Atame! is something very different to my previous boat. The crew will be jailed if no improvement is made!" asserts Bisotto.
The twenty-one yachts between 13 and 18 metres, where the Mini Maxis start, is a highly competitive bunch. Four yachts in this bracket were launched this year. Arthur Podesta's Beneteau 45 Elusive II Medbank (MLT), Andrea Casini's Comet 45 S Quattrogatti (ITA), Pit Finis' Ker 53 Dralion (GER) and former Rolex Fastnet Race winner Piet Vroon with his new Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens 3 (NED). Fielding older yachts, but no less motivated, are Guy Tzarfati with his Beneteau 47.7 Wizsoft back again from Israel and hoping for more wind in the early stages of the race after being forced to retire last year, and, Mark Schranz with his Grand Soleil Nemesis-CredalTrust (MLT). Schranz was part of the 2006 Artie crew so knows what it takes to have a shot at winning. This time, though, he is doing the race double-handed with Isaac Borg, "I've done the race three-times now," said Schranz, "but Isaac is very-experienced having done the race six times. We've sailed together for the past ten-years."
With twenty entrants over 18-metres, the fleet is once again a balanced representation of the offshore yacht-racing world. And, whatever games the weather may hold for the crews, there will be plenty of theatre at the start, as Dimech explains, "sailing is not normally allowed in Grand Harbour and with a mile from the line to the harbour entrance, we can expect a great spectacle. Signals will be the usual combination of horns and guns. We've swapped the howitzers used in previous years for some restored 17th century black powder cannons. These same cannon were used to salute ships entering and leaving Grand Harbour and fired at noon daily so that ships' chronometers could be set with accuracy for navigational purposes. So that is a nice touch."
Dimech also reports that the Race Committee has paid attention to the length of the course. With the start in a different harbour and the finish further up the Marsamxetto just off the new Royal Malta Yacht Club premises at Ta'biex, the positions of the initial marks that take the fleet up the north-east coast of Malta before the turn to Sicily have been adjusted so the course record set by Rambler in 2007 is still a valid benchmark.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race commences on Saturday, 17 October 2009. Entries close on 10 October. The final prize giving is on Saturday, 24 October 2009.
George David's Rambler established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.